Improving American Rail, part 5: reclaiming our train stations

If you are standing in downtown South Bend, IN, located about a mile and a half from the campus of the University of Notre Dame, and you look south over the city you can see in the near distance a curved roof adjacent to a rail embankment. The structure is the city’s old Union Station. Now defunct it is repurposed to house data centers. If you take the train to South Bend however, you will disembark at one of two stations–the South Bend Airport station or the Amtrak station–both are located in two different parts of town west of the city center; both are a number of miles from important landmarks. No passenger trains stop at the old centrally located Union Station.

In so many cases, this is the reality of train stations in cities all across the country. Old stations, often built-in a palatial styles or at the height of the Art Deco period, stand empty or defunct only to have trains stop at places far outside of town along desolate and meek platforms. In so many cities, contemporary stations have nothing more than the most basic amenities and few could be called centers of civic life or economy. There are grand plans for the reinvigoration of passenger rail in the United States. California is pushing ahead with plans for a high-speed rail line connecting north and south as are Florida and Texas. At a smaller scale Michigan and Illinois are doing the same thing in the Midwest. But the larger conversations seem to stop where the trains do: the stations. A world-class rail system is the product of good service, comfortable and convenient rides, but also great stations. But as far as I can tell, only a handful of stations are getting the attention they deserve.

I spent a good chuck of time writing about the significance of revising Union Station in Chicago, which is disproportionately important because of its location at the center of both the national and Midwest rail systems. The attention Union Station needs is well deserved, but we don’t want a rail system that is like a crown with one real jewel in it and a bunch of faux plastic diamonds surrounding it. Train stations are one of the places where passengers most intimately interact with a rail system. Stations are where the city greets these intercity systems. They also provide malleable ways to begin taking on the massive project of rebuilding a transit system that was lost long ago. They offer more than one use in one place, and that is an immediately tapable characteristic, one which may more easily garner private and public funds.

Unfortunately, we are no longer a home of universally good or great train stations. In so many cities, even where the old head houses still stand, contemporary train stations have transformed into shells of their former selves. Take St. Louis for example. The current intercity train station and transit hub is the Gateway Multimodal Transportation Center. The stop is nothing more than a pedestrian bridge and a few platforms squished between a double-decker highway and rail yard. Interestingly though the old Union Station (an historic landmark) is right around the corner. Although it has been converted into a multi-use complex, it has the capacity to be reinvented as a rail station, one along a potentially bustling passenger rail corridor. It is certainly a more visible structure and location and incredibly more aesthetically pleasing experience.

This map shows what passenger rail connections currently look like in South Bend, IN. The current services (South Shore Line and Amtrak) stop at different stations 1.5 or miles (as the crow flies) outside the city center. These distances are longer when actually routes into town are considered. If the services were re-consolidated at the city's former Union Station, passengers would disembark a 10 minute walk from Downtown.

This map shows what passenger rail connections currently look like in South Bend, IN. The current services (South Shore Line and Amtrak) stop at different stations 1.5 or miles (as the crow flies) outside the city center. These distances are longer when actually routes into town are considered. If the services were re-consolidated at the city’s former Union Station, passengers would disembark a 10 minute walk from Downtown.

There are examples of major improvements though: in Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul, major overhauls and minor changes to transit organization within the cities were implemented to turn heritage train stations into multi-modal transit and civic centers serving Amtrak, local rail mass transit systems, local buses, and intercity buses. This included modernized facilities and better connected services in a more centrally located station. In the case of Denver’s Union Station the project included and award-winning new train shed. I’ve talked about this before in the context of how important it is to have both a functional and aesthetically pleasing environment.

These are wonderful examples of how cities have taken it upon themselves to reinvent and reclaim their passenger rail stations. At a national level though, a system of best practices, recommendations, and financial incentives to reclaiming old stations can be utilized to push forward a significant part of the national invigoration of passenger rail that from my perspective is being overlooked, but has the potentially to be one of the easier and more manageable aspects of this.

The goals should be to 1) get control of these properties or in cases when heritage stations don’t exist anymore, get control of prime properties for a new train station. This leads in to a series of related goals. The stations or sites should 2) be turned into mixed private-public places with the aim of being civic centers with opportunities to connect to travel options, but also shop, or lease office space. Many European train stations retain the feel of a classic train station while also employing these other elements. Plans can be implemented even to develop the commercial spaces first before the trains arrive to create some use and simply wait to build out platforms. These sites could even become centers for farmer’s markets and art fairs or dance parties and pop-up night clubs. The most important goal is 3) to consolidate services at one station to create easy intermodal connections and bring in a high number of passengers. This isn’t always going to be possible (like in Chicago or New York), but in even in places like tiny South Bend this could make a difference. In this example, consolidation would connect South Shore Lines to Amtrak and provide easier more centralized access to South Bend and 12 plus trains in and out of South Bend in each direction daily. Consolidation alone would make a huge improvement especially if combined with other intermodal connections.

Saint Paul's Union Depot was reclaimed as a multi-modal transportation center with bus, train, and LTR services and was designed with expansion in mind. This includes new local and commuter transit routes, and intercity high-speed rail routes.

Saint Paul’s Union Depot was reclaimed as a multi-modal transportation center with bus, train, and LTR services and was designed with expansion in mind. This includes new local and commuter transit routes, and intercity high-speed rail routes.

Incentives should be made to reinvest in old stations. This could be federal or state grants covering the costs of renovations, priority advertising services for private businesses that donate money to the project, financial aid in the construction of new transit systems that connect to the stations, and increased financial aid to services that voluntarily consolidate services in one station. Speciality grants or long-term aid could be given to taking back old stations previously repurposed for non-transportation uses, like the St. Louis Union Station. Over time, the funds raised from taxes produced in stations and fees on businesses and services using them would hopefully help fund further additions, expansions, and/or renovations.

There are so many ways we can be reimagine, reclaimed and reuse our old train stations and build new ones. New train sets, reconstructed tracks, and better governance is important to improving rail in the United States, but the train stations are really important too and in some ways the most important element of this process. They are the faces of the rail systems and really the infrastructure most people will actually experience on a daily basis, even those not using the system. They also have the ability to function as new community and economic centers in struggling downtowns and city centers. We can’t expect rail to become a viable option and fuel economic change and become competitive transit modes in cities if the stations we have are retained in their sub par form. Too often they’re small, unattractive, and too far from the city centers to be accessible or have a meaningful impact on communities.

A new plan for stations needs to take social, economic, and logistical concerns into account. A plan that defines best practices should be adopted. Incentives to implement it should be identified. Our train stations should be a collection of gems woven into a larger infrastructure system. Some station designs have popped up in localized master plans and the new Denver Union Station is a great example of the possibilities the future holds for American passenger stations. And considering the attention that project got, I think it is safe to say stations are important and should get attention now rather than later.

New bike paths are good, but it’s a long-term vision that the Northwest Side really needs

The North Shore Bike Path is the southern end of a dedicated bike route, which extends practically the entire distance from Milwaukee to Chicago. The path weaves its way though forests, past prairies, over rivers all the while skirting the presence of built spaces as best it can and then suddenly terminates in the Chicago neighborhood of Edgebrook. A planned extension of the project would weave it through the southern most portion of the Cook County forest preserves along the North Branch of the Chicago River. While this is a positive step in bringing more bike-friendly infrastructure to the city a quick look at the plan makes one thing abundantly clear: the bike path exists in a vacuum and really this is sub par without more impressive bike infrastructure. It’s great that the city and county can afford to put in high-quality bike routes for recreational use in the forest preserve, but if real change is going to happen the quality, safety, and visibility of bike routes in the entire city must raise to a level that rivals city’s like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, when biking becomes an honest transportation option.

The Northwest Side seems an unlikely place to begin thinking about biking. The area of the city is served by limited mass transit routes. The CTA Blue Line is the only ‘L’ that runs through this part of the city and Metra’s model of serving mostly commuters is generally unreliable for many types of trips. Although busses are common the area, service is often infrequent and slowed by the heavy traffic in this car-oriented part of the city. None of this makes for what might be called a “bike-friendly” community. Most paths are recreational only and often accessed by car too. However, let’s be imaginative in our thinking. Granted, I am making an extreme statement, but: let us, an American city with major financial woes, spend a whole lot of money-making a car-centric corner of the city bikeable beyond recognition. How could that ever work?

The Northwest Side has some characteristics that put it in a good position to be a great trial ground for the bike friendly infrastructure that would make a Hollander or Dane feel right at home. First, the lack of transit access shouldn’t be seen as a hinderance to this type of system. Indeed, adding more bike infrastructure would help make the area more transit-oriented without having to necessarily add more transit options. Many parts of the Northwest Side are relatively close to some decent transit options the issues isn’t that they’re not their, but rather how do we get to them. Bikes might be the answer. Jefferson Park Transit Center is located within a 2.0-2.5 mile radius of much of the Northwest Side or a 10-15 minute bike trip. From here, people can transfer to the Metra, ‘L’, and numerous bus routes.

This map shows the theoretical extent of bike lanes on the Northwest Side of Chicago. This map centers on the neighborhoods of Sauganash/Edgebrook and Jefferson Park. This map shows how more extensive methods could rapidly expand the network. (dark red - protected bike lanes, orange - Dutch style "bike streets", yellow solid - buffered bike lanes, yellow dotted - stripped bike lanes, green - North Shore Bike Path extension, blue - CTA Blue Line, black - Metra routes)

This map shows the theoretical extent of bike lanes on the Northwest Side of Chicago. This map centers on the neighborhoods of Sauganash/Edgebrook and Jefferson Park. It shows how more extensive methods could rapidly expand the network. (dark red – protected bike lanes, orange – Dutch style “bike streets”, yellow solid – buffered bike lanes, yellow dotted – stripped bike lanes, green – North Shore Bike Path extension, blue – CTA Blue Line, black – Metra routes)

Secondly, the area is neighborhood heavy; what I mean by that is the Northwest Side definitely epitomizes the definition of Chicago as a city of neighborhoods. The numerous neighborhoods offer much for and would benefit from better bike infrastructure thus creating a mutually beneficial positive feedback loop. The neighborhoods allow many residents the opportunity to do much of their errands within their neighborhoods. This part of the city benefits from good schools, libraries, grocery stores in most areas, and relatively busy business districts. A bike trip to the store doesn’t require long car trips to other parts of the city when you’re on the Northwest Side and that facet of life here should be utilized. What I am saying is the idea behind bike lanes on the Northwest Side shouldn’t revolve around commuters or cross-town trips, but daily errands, visits to friends, getting to school etc. The Northwest Side offers great potential for developing into a bikes-first, cars-second part of the city. But again the hindrance: little to no reliable or safe infrastructure.

Thirdly, the area benefits from some strong spines that help bring cyclists into and out of the Northwest Side if they wish to do so by bike. Milwaukee Avenue is slowly but surely developing into an increasingly better bike street, the same goes for Lawrence and Elston. While all three need work (lots of it) the role they play as major bike routes shouldn’t be overlooked. Additionally, the North Shore Bike Path is important in that it can double as a safe passage through the neighborhood even if it isn’t the most convenient. It also provides an ideal example of what safe bike paths look like.

Fourth, the area is planned in an odd way that makes car-ownership easy, but also has pedestrian and bike-friendly streets. The old, established neighborhoods sprung up before car-ownership was common and many areas still center around rail lines in a way that supported bus, streetcar (fingers crossed), or pedestrian routes to these areas. A relatively low population density when compared to other parts of the city and the ability to build private parking easily also means car-ownership isn’t unreasonable as well. This however, could benefit bike infrastructure. Because of the ability to privately park cars (lots of alleys feed into private garages) many streets could facilitate the lost on-street parking (possibly up to 50%) that would accompany radical changes to incorporate high-quality bike lanes. Hopefully, this could be achieved an in the process raise the visibility of biking as an option increasing ridership. If successful, a goal should be to make biking such a viable option as to lower the number of cars per household, thus decreasing even more the amount of traffic in the area and on-street parking required.

[youtube.com=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9W9p4o765No]

And finally, children play the next best role in making the Northwest Side an area that is vivaciously bike-friendly. The primarily residential area has lots of families with children. Bike lanes should be designed so that kids can use them safely, whether they’re going to school, the store or library, or simply enjoying themselves. This is why the Northwest Side would be a great place to start implementing more high-quality models of bike infrastructure in Chicago–ones that may even verge on extreme for American eyes. The area is also home to many residents who age in place. Biking should be accessible for older residents as well. It adds even more mobility for all. If making an area that is car-oriented into an area where kids can safely bike most places then something impressive has been achieved–it’s an undeniable success.

It seems like an impossible cause in a car-oriented area, but there are examples of what can be done to achieve this. Even if the infrastructure costs more than simply painting stripes on asphalt it will cost significantly less than building or expanding new transit options. There is a particular stretch of bike route through Edgebrook and Forest Glen, which in my mind epitomizes the problems with our current infrastructure, but the potential as well (and especially so on the Northwest Side). I live along this stretch: it is the street based extension of the North Shore bike path system. From Devon and Leheigh it runs along Devon Avenue before dipping into neighborhood side streets zigzagging its way to Elston Avenue. The road is potholed though. The streets, though quite, are broad and allow for traffic to speed up decently fast. Major intersections lack stop lights and pit bikers and pedestrians again oncoming cars. There are no markings other than some small, well hidden signs advertising the bike route.

Chicago is a "good" biking city by American standards, but at a global level is a poorly connected city for cyclists.

Chicago is a “good” biking city by American standards, but at a global level is a poorly connected city for cyclists.

Paris is a better connected city. It is not Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but some of things to notice are the long, well developed routes with few gaps.

Paris is a better connected city. It is not Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but some of the things to notice are the long, well-developed routes with few gaps.

The prime example of a bikable city, Amsterdam includes numerous long and unbroken bike routes across the entire city with bike-friendly streets in the denser areas along basically each road.

The prime example of a bikable city, Amsterdam includes numerous long and unbroken bike routes across the entire city with bike-friendly streets in the denser areas along basically each road.

This is not a street for kids to bike along independently. This is not a street that will make for a comfortable ride to the train or grocery store. This is merely there to get sport cyclists to the lakefront, and it doesn’t even do a good job at that. Simple solutions could turn this into a fantastic bike route and exemplify what the entire system should look like. Take from the Dutch (see the video above of a street converted into a bike route): start by using colored pavement to visualize the location of a bike route to drivers. Paint the route red or green or something. Include signs at every crossing indicating this is a bike route and warning drivers they are entering shared space. Indeed, small speed-bumps doubling as crosswalks physically force drivers to slow and recognize they entered a new space. Because on street parking isn’t in high demand here, create larger curb bump-outs to force drivers to slow as they approach intersections and where possible add roundabouts. And finally: keep the street well paved.

For a fraction of the cost of new transit systems an entire network of bike routes, real ones could revolutionize transit in Chicago and on the Northwest Side. This system would easily expand across all neighborhoods along on quieter side streets increasing accessibility to cyclists of all ages and abilities. Following just the path of the North Shore trail’s street portion logical extensions reveal themselves. The route eventually leads to Forest Glen and onto Elston. An extension down Leclaire would serve the community well be bridging the gap to Jefferson Park the Jeff Park transit center, business district, Milwaukee and Lawrence. Stretch this north along Leheigh and Hiawatha and a continuous bike route through the neighborhood emerges. It can then be stretched east along Bryn Mawr connecting to Albany Park bring the Northwest Side closer to the lake and other city neighborhoods.

A bigger vision doesn’t necessarily mean everything will be achieved, however it would position the city in a way to really work on carrying out much more impressive large-scale projects. A focus on the Northwest Side additional is a symbolic step in showing that biking isn’t just something meant for Wicker Park and Logan Square or Lakeview, but it is a form of transportation appropriate for the entire city. A bike network stretched across different levels connected in unmeasurable ways is what will get people onto bikes and out of cars, and not just along high-profile routes in select sections of the city. This is especially important when considering the full spectrum of people who could use bikes, but don’t at the moment. The city wants to make biking and walking a more reasonable option for short trips, but many of those are to grocery stores, the bank, transit stops, and schools and those exist en masse across the city, not just fashionable neighborhoods and the Loop. We were always taught to think outside the box in school, let’s begin doing it again in real life. It almost seems obvious.